I blame Ted Turner.
For those of you under 45 years of age, allow me to explain: In 1980, media mogul Ted Turner founded Cable News Network, better known by its acronym CNN, the first 24-hour cable news channel. At that time, cable television was still in its infancy. The vast majority of Americans watched broadcast television, which was still being beamed into their homes via radio wave, much as it had been for the preceding 30-odd years. News was broadcast during a specific time slot, usually around the dinner hour. Local news would also have an hour in the morning and at bedtime.
That was pretty much it. Barring a major incident, like presidents being shot, you pretty much got your television news once a day. Three times a day if you were hardcore. And you pretty much had three channels on which to watch it.
The upside of this setup was that reporters and journalists had time to gather the facts on their stories. To vet their sources. And because their time was limited, they had to determine which items were truly newsworthy. That’s a real word, and if you look at it you can see the inference that the news was somewhat lofty. Information had to be worthy of its gaze.
The downside? Well, one could argue that such highfalutin’ (also a real word) gatekeepers kept a lot of important things from being told. You can look back at historical reports of “gentleman’s agreements” between the press and, say, President Kennedy’s serial philandering. Worse, look at William R. Hearst’s journalistic engineering of the Spanish-American war. There are definitely serious downsides to having an elite and powerful few control the media.
So, old Ted Turner decides to start a 24-hour news channel. Nothing but news, all day and all night. It was a revolutionary idea. When news was happening, you could go watch it instantly. The Challenger disaster? CNN was the only network to air that happening in real time. The Gulf War? It made CNN journalist Arthur Kent a poster boy (remember his nickname? “The Scud Stud”) The U.S. hadn’t had that type of breathtaking real-time on-the-scene reporting since Edward R. Murrow reported from Europe during WWII.
But then there was Baby Jessica. Anybody remember Baby Jessica? In 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell down a 22-foot well in her aunt’s backyard. CNN was on the scene. It was, to be fair, a heartbreaking story. A little tot jammed into a deep hole with no easy way to get her out. If you want to be reminded of the saga here’s the Wikipedia link. Long story short: they got her out. She survived and lived happily ever after.
The story completely riveted the nation. Why? Well, (ha!) besides the obvious dramatic pull of the scenario, CNN was all over the story. And because this relatively new 24-hour news channel was still at the time the only game in town, we could watch it in real time and feel as if we were there. We were a part of it.
I’ve worked in media. I’ve even worked in a newsroom. Here’s an interesting thing about working in media. You need content.
When you’ve only got 5 minutes at the top of every hour for the news (as I did back in my radio days) you must sift. We had an AP news feed (it was something like Twitter but instead of reading it on a computer screen everything was literally printed out in a continuous feed on a dot-matrix printer and wow do I feel old now) that we used for our national stories and we had to (literally) sift through it to determine which stories we would report. In other words, our supply of news was usually greater than our time demanded. We could be picky.
Now take that same scenario but instead of 5 minutes out of every hour you’re on all the time. Your need for content becomes much higher. Your demand exceeds your supply. You simply can’t be as picky because you have to fill that time. Any story, no matter how silly or non-essential to your well-being, is better than dead air.
This is where we are now. Except now with Internet and social media, the market for “news” has grown exponentially. And there’s an extra twist:
Now we decide what the news is.
By “we” I mean you, me, and everyone else. We, the people. The end-users.
(The following inset is a wonky diversion that isn’t entirely necessary to the thrust of this post but it allows me to show my parents that my communications degree wasn’t a complete waste of money. You can skip it if you like.)
Back when I was in college studying communications, we were taught several theories of how communication worked. Two of the big ones were the magic bullet theory and the two-step theory.
The magic bullet theory (also called the hypodermic needle model) posits that information is a one-step deal. Information is provided by a medium and “shot” or “injected” directly into the recipient.
The two-step theory posits that information flows to the masses in two steps. First it is received by opinion leaders, who then pass the information along to opinion followers.
When I was learning this (in the mid-1980s, right around the time Baby Jessica was being dug out of that well) the thought was that magic bullet was a bit outdated and that two-step was the more progressive model. Now with the big data customization of news we get from the internet magic bullet is being reconsidered.
If you’re reading this, you’re already on the internet. You probably got word of this through social media. So you already know that these days, your news is customized just for you by extremely complicated algorithms. The topics and things you read, search for, purchase, like, and comment upon are recorded, distributed, and regurgitated back to you in the form of more news about that thing.
And now, 1000 words later, here is my point:
You share a post about how horrified you are about the goings on of Westboro Baptist Church. You say you are sick and tired of seeing posts about Donald Trump. You tweet Seriously how the hell are The Kardashians even famous?
They are famous because of you. They are famous because of me.
Now we decide what the news is.
Say what you will about Donald J. Trump, The Kardashians, or Westboro Baptist Church, but there is one thing these folks all have in common: They are marketing geniuses.
There’s an old expression that says “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” These organizations have figured this out. The more you talk about them, in whatever capacity, the more they become a big thing, a “trending topic,” and the more the more mainstream media is compelled to cover them and to discuss them. It’s what got Trump the nomination, and he is a master at playing this game.
So, where does that leave us? I dunno. I’m an observer, not a leader. But I am reminded of the Which Wolf Will You Feed? parable. Now that we are the ones feeding the media beast, do we want to feed the one that sows hate, fear, and superficiality? Perhaps there are more attractive beasts to tend to.